It’s Spring. Do You Know Where Your Perennials Are?

When I was growing up in the late Mesozoic era, TV stations used to demonstrate their civic responsibility by running a particular public service announcement. The one I have in mind usually had a still shot of some teenagers on a dark street, obscured by shadows. And there would be an announcer, asking more in sorrow than in anger: “It’s 10 o’clock. Do you know where your children are?”

Culver's Root 'Fascination', Veronicastrum virginicum
Culver’s Root ‘Fascination’, a late riser. Asiatic lilies in the background.

As you might suspect, this was at a time of heightened concern about crime. Do they still run that announcement, or some version of it?

I was thinking of that old TV spot recently when I was trying to figure out where in the raised driveway border to plant three ‘Longwood Blue’ bluebeard (Caryopteris xclandonensis). I made the mental connection, such as it was, when I realized that it was spring and I didn’t know where some of my perennials were. And that meant that I was uncertain about where to put my ‘Longwood Blue’.

Joe Pye Weed 'Gateway'
Joe Pye Weed ‘Gateway’, another slug-a-bed.

Several of the plants in this bed are late to emerge from dormancy, which didn’t help. (Like many teenagers, these plants stay in bed far too long.) Some examples: butterflyweed (Asclepias tuberosa), Joe Pye weed (Eutrochium purpureum), and Culver’s root (Veronicastrum virginicum ‘Fascination’). I didn’t want to place my new bluebeards where they would be cheek by jowl with some inappropriate neighbor, nor did I want to damage an existing perennial while planting a new one.

Also, there were a couple of emerging mystery plants I couldn’t identify. Were they early sunflower (Heliopsis), ironweed (Vernonia)? Friend or foe? Plants in my garden have an annoying habit of disappearing, then reappearing a year or two later more robust than ever before.

Butterflyweed, Asclepias tuberosa
Butterflyweed rises late and hates to be disturbed.

Sure, I know I’m supposed to have some system to identify what is growing where, but I’m just not organized that way. So the new bluebeards sat in their pots against the south-facing wall of the house for two weeks, until I could make a more educated guess about what plants were where.

Do you know where your perennials are? Or are you making guesses and hoping for the best?

So Happy I Could Cry

This is a very stressful period for some garden bloggers (namely, me). On the one hand, we have had another glorious weekend and I am almost overwhelmed by all the wonderful blooms now returning to the garden, not to mention the new plants being installed.

Tulipa 'Flair'

I want to write posts about all these developments for this blog.  But I cannot spend too much time writing, because spring is moving fast and garden tasks are piling up, especially since I am home only two or three days a week. Moreover, everybody else has so many wonderful blooms in THEIR gardens and they are busy writing posts about it for their blogs, and I must read and maybe comment on those posts … Just thinking about it is exhausting.

'Couleur Cardinal'. This is a Jason picture, please excuse the hubcap.
‘Couleur Cardinal’. This is a Jason picture, please excuse the hubcap.

But enough self-pity. Let’s talk about the new blooms that have emerged just since last week. Well, for starters the container tulips have started to bloom! So far we have ‘Flair’, ‘Bellona’, and ‘Couleur Cardinal’.

The first of my container tulips in bloom. The yellow is 'Bellona'.
The first of my container tulips in bloom. The yellow is ‘Bellona’.

I’m afraid I did lose some of the container tulips, though. This fall I definitely want to plant tulips in containers again. However, I will use only the larger containers and provide them with extra insulation.

There is also another species tulip, Tulipa clusiana ‘Cynthia’.

Tulipa clusiana 'Cynthia'
Tulipa clusiana ‘Cynthia’

Among the native spring flowers, the celandine poppies (Stylophorum diphyllum) are blooming vigorously.

Celandine Poppies
Celandine poppies with Virginia bluebells at lower left.

And the Virginia Bluebells (Mertensia virginica) are just about reaching their peak.

Virginia Bluebells
Virginia Bluebells

The dangling yellow flowers of merrybells (Uvularia grandiflora) are on display. This native wildflower should be used more in shade gardens, I think. It is interesting and beautiful, if a bit understated. In a location with sufficient moisture, it makes a good groundcover after blooming.


Serviceberry ‘Autumn Brilliance’ is showing off its pure white spring flowers.

Serviceberry 'Autumn Brilliance'
Serviceberry ‘Autumn Brilliance’

False forget-me-not (Brunnera macrophylla), a very useful and lovely non-native spring flower, is also blooming.

Brunnera macrophyla
False Forget-Me-Not

On the foliage front, the fiddleheads of the ostrich ferns (Metteucia struthiopteris) are unfurling.

Ostrich Ferns
Ostrich ferns unfurling

And the wild ginger (Asarum canadensis), a nice native groundcover for shade, has emerged.

Wild Ginger
Wild ginger grows near the gate at the far end of the path. Merrybells grow in the foreground.

Tasks this weekend included:

  • Planting a new bed in the area where I had taken down some bridalwreath shrubs (Spirea vanhouteii). I also settled some more mail order plants into the raised front walk bed. More on these activities in later posts.
  • Getting a start on weeding! Featuring dandelions already blooming, creeping charlie, and other delights.
  • Preparing my little vegetable and herb bed. This entailed setting up the tomato trellises and digging out the rest of the old plant debris. Also, I had to beat back the oregano (Oreganum vulgare), which is bent on turning my entire lot into a oregano plantation. In addition to creating thriving colonies through seeding, the oregano mother ship has a rapidly expanding root mass with the density of 3″ armor plate. I may have bent my shovel trying to slice off pats of it.

Are you having trouble keeping on top of your blog and your garden? And which new blooms are you excited about?

Return of the Prodigal Grosbeak

The beginning of May is when many migratory songbirds return to the Chicago area. And so, before leaving home for a business trip, I stocked the bird feeders with some of their favorite foods.

Rose Breasted Grosbeak
Rose Breasted Grosbeak

Sure enough, when I returned today, there were Baltimore Orioles and Rose Breasted Grosbeaks making themselves at home in the back garden.

Baltimore Orioles spend the winter in Colombia, Central America, and other areas around the Caribbean. They are not considered to be endangered, but are not normally seen because they spend their time up in the tops of trees. Unless, that is, you put out grape jelly and orange halves, but especially grape jelly. And that is exactly what I did before leaving on Tuesday morning. Once they start feeding in your back garden, I have found that they will stick around until fall.

Male Baltimore Oriole
Male Baltimore Oriole

Rose Breasted Grosbeaks are large finches, related to Cardinals. Like the Orioles, they overwinter in regions near the Caribbean. They are ground feeders who appreciate sunflower or safflower seeds. They like to feed on the ground, so I attract them with a platform feeder. Unfortunately, in my garden they show up in May but don’t stick around for more than two or three weeks. They may show up again on their way south in the autumn.

Female Baltimore Oriole
Female Baltimore Oriole

Have you seen any favorite songbirds return lately?

Forsythia: For Or Against?

Forsythia bushes bursting with bright yellow flowers is a common springtime sight in this part of the world, a sight that lifts the spirits of many. Yet not everyone loves forsythia. The anti-forsythia camp argues for an indictment of this shrub on the following counts:

Forsythia in the mixed hedge on the west side of the back garden.

An exotic, it is of little wildlife value in North America. No berries for the birds. Not a host plant for butterflies or moths. On the other hand, I have found borers in the stems on a couple of occasions.

Once the yellow flowers are gone, it offers little of interest for the rest of the year. Actually, they sometimes have decent fall color. But even so, this is a plant that fades into the background much of the year.

It creates a thickety mess if you turn your back on it. As they grow, forsythia stems will arch down to the ground, where they put down roots and start a new plant. Ignore them for a season or two and you will have a jungle on your hands, albeit a bright yellow jungle in springtime.

It is just too damn common. I suspect this is the single biggest reason people really don’t like forsythia, and I would agree that it is over-used. On the other hand, some would say that black-eyed susan, also known as orange coneflower (Rudbeckia fulgida), is over-used. This may be true, but I still love black-eyed susan. Simply being common does not always make a plant tiresome. If it does or not seems to be a matter that is entirely personal and subjective.

I suppose I am a member of the anti-forsythia camp, but I try not to be rabid about it. The lack of wildlife value for me is the deciding factor. A few years ago, we had to remove a forsythia hedge on the east side of the house in order to waterproof the basement. I did not mourn its passing.

Red Elderberry
Red elderberry fruit.

Instead, I took the opportunity to replace them with red elderberry (Sambucus racemosa L.), a native shrub with pyramids of small white flowers in spring, followed by bright red berries. It is a favorite of many birds, including cedar waxwings, orioles, and robins.  I should confess that this is another shrub that will pursue world domination if not watched closely. Also, though the fruit is edible for birds, it is also  toxic for humans.

I still have some forsythia in the mixed hedge along the west side of the back garden. I am trying to train these forsythia so that they will provide a better privacy screen, and also to prevent them from spreading in an unruly manner.

I admit that a well-pruned forsythia bush can be attractive, at least during it’s spring peak. Such a shrub is in front of one of the houses across the street. This forsythia is pruned to create an upright shape topped by arching stems that stop several feet above the ground.

See that forsythia through the gate and across the street? I like that one.

At the risk of being repetitive, I have to mention again that a good native alternative to forsythia is spicebush (Lindera benzoin). This shrub has fragrant foliage, understated yellow flowers in early spring, is a butterfly host plant, and has attractive red berries of high value to birds in fall.

Spicebush in bloom

Which side of the forsythia divide are you on: for or against?

End of Month View: April 2013

Helen at The Patient Gardener‘s Weblog hosts a meme called End of Month View, which is pretty much what is suggested by the title. This is a very useful exercise because I am often tempted to show close ups of a particular plant or a grouping of plants. Wider views of different sections of the garden tend to appear much less frequently, especially when it is not at its glorious peak. So here’s a picture of the bed that lies along the driveway and front walk.

Front Yard Garden

In this bed there is stock blooming at the far end, plus some daffodils and species tulips. The stock is wonderfully fragrant, we can smell it every time we go in or out. The celandine poppies (Stylophorum diphyllum) are filling in, as are the nepeta and hardy geraniums. Round fuzzy flower buds have appeared on the celandine poppies. There are clumps of grassy Muscari leaves, and the foliage of species tulips not yet ready to bloom. On top of that, I must have planted three flats of pansies of various kinds in order to get a full, colorful look early in the season. Somehow it still looks rather sparse.

Here’s another view of the front garden, looking out towards the street. Y(Sou can see part of the driveway/front walk bed, the parkway bed, the sidewalk bed, and the front island bed. As I mentioned in my last post, the blue squill (Scilla sibirica) is naturalizing in the front island bed. New England Aster and some other perennials are starting to emerge. However, the swamp milkweed (Asclepias incarnata) and some other plants are still dormant.


Front Yard Garden


By the way, here’s a picture of the tulips in containers on the front steps. Some already have their flower buds.


Container tulips


Here’s a view into the back garden. Forsythia, spicebush (Lindera benzoin), squill, and daffodils are blooming. Virginia bluebells (Mertensia virginica) should be blooming by next weekend. Hardy geranium, more celandine poppies, allium, jacob’s ladder (Polemonium reptans), and various other bulbs and perennials are pushing up green growth.


View through arbor


This is looking back from inside the back garden toward the side path.


view through gate


Now that spring has really arrived, it seems to be moving along in a hurry. Are you happy with how your garden is emerging this spring?


Tip Toe Through The Siberian Squill

Ladies and gentlemen, we have just enjoyed a glorious spring weekend. Much to write about, but I won’t attempt to cover everything in one post. For right now, I just want to talk about the flowers that, more than any other, define spring in this part of the world. Namely, bulbs.


The early species tulips are blooming lustily. Species tulips are a favorite of mine. The flowers are smaller but more interesting with great colors. Their best qualities are that they have smaller bulbs are easier to work into a mixed bed, also they are reliably perennial and will sometimes naturalize. Species tulips are first cousins to the wild tulips that grow from Central Asia to the Mediterranean.

If I say so myself, this combination of Tulipa praestans ‘Unicum’ (red) and Tulipa turkestanica (yellow and white) is very fetching.

Tulipa praestans 'Unica' and Tulipa turkestanica
Tulipa praestans ‘Unica’ and Tulipa turkestanica

The deep red Tulipa linifolia also does well all on its own.

Tulipa linifolia and Tulipa turkestanica
Tulipa linifolia and T. turkestanica

Here’s some more  T. turkestanica. This tulip and ‘Unicum’ are definitely naturalizing in my beds. Not all species tulips will naturalize, of course. I planted some Tulipa clusiana ‘Tubergen’s Gem’, and that particular tulip seems to have disappeared.

Tulipa turkestanica
T, turkestanica

There’s also this little tulip, blooms very early on very short stems, almost ground level. I can’t remember the name, anybody have an ID?

Species tulip
Mystery tulip

Before I move on from tulips, I should mention the hybrid tulips I’m growing in containers. We’re still at 72 out of 90 tulips now up. Some may not have made it through the winter, or they could just be late varieties – too early to tell. If we did lose a bunch of bulbs, I will make a point of giving the containers more insulation next winter, and also maybe not using the smaller ones.

The daffodils are blooming nicely. Sorry to say I have lost track of the varieties there are in my garden.

yellow daffodils

I like the white and partially white daffodils.

White daffodils

White daffodils
Our concrete chicken likes daffodils.

Then there are the squill (Scilla sibirica). They are starting to naturalize in the front yard.


In the back garden, they’ve been naturalizing for a while. There is a stretch of Lincoln Park in Chicago where there is just a sea of blue from all the squill, for me one of the highlights of the season.

Squill in the back garden

As I say, this weekend was so beautiful that everybody on the block felt compelled to go out and work in the garden. Even our neighbors’ dog Daisy wanted to experience the joy of digging in the mud. This picture was taken with Daisy looking up as Judy leaned over the fence we share with these neighbors.

Daisy helping in the garden.
You dirty dog!

Was your weekend as great as ours? I certainly hope so!

Another Plant Delivery, And Taming A Wild Raised Bed

Oh joy, another box of plants have arrived, this time from Bluestone Perennials. With a single exception, all of these are meant for in and around the raised bed at the west end of the parkway. This is an area that gets a lot of sun, and is seldom if ever watered for the simple reason that it is just about the furthest point on my property from the front water spigot.

Geranium 'Johnson's Blue'
Geranium ‘Johnson’s Blue’

This bed, in my opinion, has gotten a little too wild. It is full of self-sown asters and golden alexander, not to mention big clumps of wild violets. Don’t misunderstand me, I like all these plants. However, I also feel they are not right for parkway beds in an inner ring suburban neighborhood.

Wild Petunia
Wild Petunia with Wild Strawberry

A parkway garden should be densely planted, colorful and rich with texture (like any garden). But it also needs to be reasonably neat and not too tall. With this in mind, last fall I made over the raised bed at the west end of the parkway. Now it’s the turn of the east bed. Outside of the raised beds, most of the parkway is covered in a mixed ground cover of wild strawberry (Fragaria virginiana), wild petunia (Ruellia humilis), prairie smoke (Geum triflorum), and Nepeta ‘Walker’s Low’.

I’m not getting rid of all the plants in the east raised bed. There are three large and vigorous daylilies (Hemerocallis ‘Star Struck’) and a growing clump of Ohio spiderwort (Tradescantia ohioensis). There are also bulbs, a mix of species and hybrid tulips. Actually, it was in order to plant tulips that I built the raised beds. That’s because at the time I got rid of the grass on the parkway, the soil was so compacted that I would have needed a pneumatic drill to get any bulbs planted.

This bed and its surrounding area has a kind of random, improvised feel. There’s a good reason for this, namely, that I filled it with plants in a totally random, improvised manner.

Ohio Spiderwort
Ohio Spiderwort blooms at the top of grass-like stems.

But all that is going to change. (As I write this, I am wondering – should I transplant that Ohio spiderwort after all?)

Thanks to the new delivery from Bluestone Perennials, I am going to achieve a new look. Here are the plants:

  • Calamint (Calamintha nepetoides).  This is a bushy, drought tolerant plant about 1-2′ tall. In summer it is covered with tiny white flowers much loved by the bees.  This will provide repetition to the calamint at the west end of the parkway.
  • Geranium ‘Johnson’s Blue’. Yeah, I know many new varieties of hardy Geranium are supposed to be better, but this cultivar is an old friend who has performed well for me. Small blue flowers in spring, plus finely cut foliage. There’s already clumps of this cultivar in other front garden beds.
  • Salvia ‘Carradonna’.  A 2′ Salvia with deep purple flowers spikes. Again, a repetition of the west end of the parkway.
  • Sundrops ‘Summer Solstice’ (Oenothera tetragona).  This cultivar has 2′ flower spikes with clear yellow flowers in late spring and early summer.
  • Miniature Hollyhock (Sidalcea malviflora ‘Party Girl’.) This is a bit of an experiment. I LOVE hollyhocks, and I used to grow them. Eventually this became impossible due to devastating rust problems. Sidalcea is supposed to be rust resistant. We’ll see. It grows to only 3′ and has only pink and rose flowers, not actually my favorite colors on a hollyhock.
Parkway Garden
West parkway bed, planting in progress. Oh, those are ‘Globemaster’ Allium in a clump in front of the raised bed. Did I mention that this bed was kind of random?

So there you are. I’ll be posting pictures through the year to show how this bed does or doesn’t come together.

Have you been doing makeovers of beds that have gotten away from you?

Wildflower Wednesday: Golden Alexander, It’s Freakin’ Golden

To paraphrase a former Illinois Governor, “It’s freakin’ golden, and I’m not gonna give it away for nothing.” If only he had been referring to the native wildflower Golden Alexander (Zizia aurea), he would never have gotten into so much trouble with federal prosecutors. And he would have been fully justified in placing a high value on this useful perennial. Golden Alexander is not a dramatic plant, but it does have many virtues: attractive, easy to grow, and extremely adaptable.

Golden Alexander
Golden Alexander

A member of the carrot family, Golden Alexander has flat umbels made up of tiny yellow flowers.  In a mass, these umbels can have impact, even at a distance. Bloom time is generally late spring and early summer.

The foliage is deep green, lance or oval-shaped.

Golden Alexander
Golden Alexander at the far end of the sidewalk border.

Golden Alexander is native to large areas of eastern and central USA and Canada. It’s natural habitats are moist prairies and open woods. In the garden, I’ve found that it will grow in part shade or sun, moist or slightly dry soils. It requires no special attention. In fact, in rich soils it can grow far larger than its normal height of 1-3′, so that I often find myself cutting it back.

Golden Alexander’s foliage provides a restful green backdrop for summer and fall blooming flowers. The flowers form interesting seed heads during this period. You can cut down the seed heads to avoid self-sowing. On the other hand, Golden Alexander doesn’t get obnoxious about spreading by seed, and the seedlings are easily pulled.

Golden Alexander, Wild Geranium
Golden Alexander with Wild Geranium

In terms of wildlife value, Golden Alexander is a host plant for the Black Swallowtail butterfly, and the flowers are attractive to bees and other pollinators.

Thanks to Gail at Clay and Limestone for hosting Wildflower Wednesday.

More Plants Arrive!

This time of spring is better than Christmas, Hannukah, and all the other holidays rolled into one. Just like during the holiday season, delivery vans periodically pull up to the house. What’s better is: 1) all the boxes are marked “Live Plants – Fragile”; and 2) it’s all for me!!!

Just in time for this past weekend I got the year’s first delivery from Prairie Nursery. All the plants but one were for the raised bed that runs along the driveway. Here’s what arrived:

Yellow Coneflower (Ratibida pinnata). I only have three yellow coneflowers, not nearly enough. The new arrivals will help create more of a drift in the center of the bed. One reason I have to do this is I am digging out the purple coneflowers (Echinacea purpurea), which have become too susceptible to aster yellows infections. I find the Ratibida to be more disease resistant.

yellow coneflower
A lonely yellow coneflower in our driveway bed. He needs more friends!

Butterflyweed for Clay (Asclepias tuberosa var. Clay). Butterflyweed normally likes a dry, sandy soil, but Prairie Nursery has a variety that is adapted to clay soil. I find that it establishes itself in my garden more successfully than regular butterflyweed.  I already have some butterflyweed growing along the west edge of the driveway bed, where it basks in the afternoon sun. The new plants I’m putting behind the Nepeta, to get that orange/blue complementary colors thing going.

See the orange butterflyweed at the bottom of the page? The new butterflyweed will extend along the Nepeta on the west edge of the bed.

Blue Cohosh (Caulophyllum thalictroides). There is no rhyme or reason to my buying this plant. I just saw it and had to have it. Click the link and see if it speaks to you. According to the website, it is treasured for its lacy blue-green foliage and deep blue berries! How could  I not buy it? Anyhow, I only bought one. This is a woodland plant, so I put it in the raised bed I have in the lightly shaded back garden.

While the prior week featured rain of almost Biblical proportions, but Sunday the raised beds were dry enough to do some planting. Fortunately, all of the above plants were destined for raised beds.

More orders are coming – from Prairie Nursery, from Bluestone Perennials, and maybe some others I’ve forgotten about.

Had any good plant deliveries lately?

First Butterfly Of The Season

Judy saw this guy sunning himself on some dead leaves in the driveway bed.

Mourning Cloak butterfly
Mourning Cloak butterfly. This guy is pretty well camouflaged, we almost missed him.

Pretty sure it’s a Mourning Cloak. Any butterfly enthusiasts out there care to confirm or contradict this ID? I read a little bit about Mourning Cloaks here. Apparently these butterflies are one of the few that can live through the cold winters of the American midwest. They do this by going into a kind of hibernation called diapause.

Morning Cloaks have a variety of host plants. One of them is the common hackberry (Celtis occidentalis). I have a hackberry growing in my parkway. I’d like to think this Mourning Cloak was eating the leaves of my hackberry when it was in its caterpillar stage.

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